Research Findings

Women’s entry into authority positions alone is not sufficient for achieving gender equality

June 8, 2023

Women are significantly underrepresented in positions of workplace authority and power across the globe. Improving women’s representation in authority jobs has become an important goal for many organizations and governments striving toward gender equality in the workplace. Firms are increasingly adopting policies to increase diversity at all levels of management and some governments have introduced legislation requiring a set quota of representation of women in corporate boards.

Although undoubtedly an important direction, my recent research in Gender & Society shows that women’s entry into authority positions alone is not sufficient for achieving gender equality.

In my research, I ask a straightforward yet underexplored question: how do the jobs and experiences of women and men compare once they have positions with authority?

Using data from a large survey of more than 100,000 women and men working in Dutch organizations, I analyzed differences in reported levels of job benefits such as earnings and autonomy and negative job experiences such as workplace harassment and burnout between women and men in positions of workplace authority. To take account of the fact that women and men are concentrated in different industries that potentially involve different work experiences, I compared women and men with similar qualifications who work in similar industries and sectors.

I find that women in authority report fewer resources than men with similar jobs, and are more likely to report experiences of work-related strains. Crucially, women with authority jobs are the most likely of all groups to report experiencing sexual harassment, bullying, and intimidation at the workplace. They have the highest probability of reporting job burnout symptoms. Men in positions of workplace authority, on the other hand, are the least likely of all groups to experience job burnout.

Widespread gender stereotypes are a likely explanation for these patterns. There is rich empirical evidence indicating that women are seen as less suitable for workplace authority than men, and that these beliefs shape social relations and evaluations of women and men at work. One way such beliefs can have consequences in the workplace is that colleagues and clients harass women in authority in attempts to penalize their violation of gender norms.

My analyses show that the highest incidence of experiencing workplace harassment among women with authority jobs leads to their experiences of job burnout, a psychological response to chronic stressful work conditions.

While my research is based on data from the Netherlands, my findings are likely to apply to other contexts as widely shared cultural beliefs about women’s incompatibility with authority have been documented across countries. One U.S.–based study, for example, also finds that women with workplace authority are the most likely to experience sexual harassment.

The concentration of women in lower-level authority positions does not explain their lower levels of resources and higher probabilities of experiencing job strains. Men have more  resources and are less likely than women in authority to experience job strains for all types of jobs with different levels of authority. For example, men earn substantively more than women both at the bottom of the authority ladder, in positions with little authority, and at the top of the authority hierarchy, in decision-making positions entailing the authority to make final decisions about organizational policies.

2022 report on women in the workplace found that women in managerial positions are leaving their companies at the highest rate ever, and that the gap between women and men in senior positions quitting their jobs is larger today than ever before. Workplace harassment and job burnout have often been associated with job absenteeism and higher turnover, and lower job satisfaction and productivity among those who stay on the job. While many women may leave their authority jobs for better authority jobs, it is highly plausible that experiences of workplace harassment and job burnout lead to some women (eventually) dropping out of jobs that carry authority, which leads to even more underrepresentation of women in these jobs.

My research shows that dismantling gender inequality necessitates deep cultural and institutional change.

Read more

Dragana Stojmenovska. “Gender Differences in Job Resources and Strains in Authority Positions” in Gender & Society 2023.

Image: vumroehrs0 via Pixabay

This post was originally published on the Gender & Society blog

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